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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Grande Sonate No. 3 Op.14 [29:07]
Faschingsschwank aus Wien Op.26 [21:22]
Drei Fantasiestücke Op.111 [11:12]
Gesänge der Frühe Op.133 [12:18]
Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano)
rec. 2018, Potton Hall, Dunwich, UK
CHANDOS CHAN20081 [74:26]

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet gives us a mix of Schumann’s large-scale early piano works and his more intimate and gnomic later pieces. In the programme notes, he recounts that he first came across Schumann’s F Minor Sonata through listening to Horowitz’s famous recording. He later had the opportunity to play the work to Horowitz during the Russian pianist’s last visit in Paris. As a homage, he uses Horowitz’s version of the first movement, a hybrid of Schumann’s 1834 and 1853 versions of the sonata. Intriguingly, Bavouzet says that he came across a manuscript of the scherzo to the sonata in the British library which contains the word “Fire of angels”. He surmises that this might be a reference to Clara Schumann

Bavouzet’s performance of the Third Sonata is one of the best I have heard, and certainly gives Horowitz a run for his money. The first movement opens in muscular fashion as swirling textures engulf the keyboard. Song-like utterances vie with playful dotted rhythms and moments of heady Romantic ardour. The scherzo is crisp and nicely pointed, while the transition to the trio is one of those rare moments of heart-stopping beauty – fire of angels indeed. The variations of the third movement mix sombre introspection with hot blooded passion. The whirling semiquavers of the finale are dispatched with enormous virtuoso firepower. Bavouzet somehow finds space amid the tumult to allow Schumann’s songs to bewitch and enchant before bringing the house down with an adrenaline-fuelled coda.

Faschingsschwank aus Wien (carnival jest from Vienna) is one of Schumann’s more popular works. It originally had the subtitle Phantasiebilder but the last movement is in sonata form, so it is an extraordinary hybrid work which defies categorisation. Bavouzet opens with enormous rhythmic zest. He is highly responsive to Schumann’s manic shifts of mood. There are startling shifts in texture, colour and dynamics, and one cannot help but be swept along with the enchanting waltz sequences. The scherzo is quirky, witty and alive while the intermezzo with its swirling triplets and passionate extended melody is utterly compelling. The rapid-fire finger-work of the finale is executed brilliantly before the piece comes to its triumphant conclusion. Richter and Michelangeli both left superb recordings of this work; Bavouzet’s performance belongs in the same company.

The Drei Fantasiestücke Op.111 are not played as often as Schumann’s other piano works. Bavouzet’s account of these miniatures, highly persuasive, makes one wonder why they are not performed more often. I was particularly impressed with the second of the three pieces. It opens with an enchanting melody before giving way to a more anguished middle section with rich dark sonorities from the bottom of the keyboard.

The final work on the disc is Gesänge der Frühe (songs of dawn). Schumann wrote it in 1853 just before his attempted suicide and incarceration in an asylum. The best recordings of this work, such as that by Anderszewski, capture the profound sadness and fragility at the heart of the music. Bavouzet also succeeds in doing so in this mesmerising account. The first movement opens in a prayer-like way and the gradual darkening of the tone colours is spellbinding. The swirling triplets in the second movement have a surreal hallucinatory quality, while the dotted rhythms of the third movement convey ardour and struggle. Bavouzet weaves together the gossamer threads in the fourth movement into rich textures before the final moment of resignation. In the final movement Bavouzet exposes the composer’s tenuous grip on sanity in a way that is profoundly moving.

Once again this is great playing from Bavouzet. The breadth of his repertoire and the depth of his interpretations mark him out as one of the greatest pianists of his generation.

Robert Beattie

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